Uber customers have been urged not to cross a “digital picket line” as British drivers with the app-based service staged their first coordinated national strike.
Organisers of the 24-hour strike, which started at lunchtime on Tuesday – the latest part of a push to unionise the so-called gig economy – said many drivers logged off the app and stayed at home, while hundreds staged rallies outside the Uber offices in London, Birmingham and Nottingham.
One reflection of the deep distrust between strikers and the company was a claim by those involved that Uber had intervened in the app’s pricing algorithm in order to generate a “surge” in prices to entice drivers to work. This was flatly denied by the company.
The Uber strike was organised by United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which is demanding an end to what it describes as unfair deactivations of drivers, an increase in fares to £2 per mile from a current rate of £1.25 in London, and a 10% reduction in commissions paid by drivers. The company has defended its pay record, adding that it had recently introduced sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections.
Police arrived in force at Uber’s headquarters in east London after strikers and supporters tried to enter the building. Among those present was a driver who said anger had been building in recent months among his peers, who he said had been organising on WhatsApp.
“I’ve worked for them for three years but it is getting harder to make ends meet,” said the man, who declined to give his name, citing fears that the company would “deactivate” him. He said he made between £500 and £600 a week for driving between 30 and 40 hours.
“We’re in an extremely difficult position. I had an accident about two months ago and have trouble using one of my legs now, but the support from the company has not been there,” he said. Uber said the driver should be covered by sickness and injury protection it launched with the insurer AXA in June.
Those involved in the strike are calling for the swift application of a 2016 tribunal judgment that rejected Uber’s classification of a group of drivers as independent contractors.
Senior Labour figures backed the strike, including the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watsonand John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who said: “I support this strike for better employment rights and urge others to respect the app picket line.”
Stephen Hull, a Birmingham-based driver and union organiser, said: “There is mass discontent among drivers because the oversupply of vehicles and the way that drivers earn their money is making it almost impossible to make enough to live.”
Hull, who has been driving for Uber for three and a half years, said it had initially been a good experience thanks to bonuses for hitting targets. “Then they would start to phase out the promotions and it just got harder and harder,” he added.
It is no longer his main source of income. “If I was to rely on Uber, I would be working 12 hours a day, six days a week to be able to make enough to survive.”
Uber said: “We are always looking to make improvements to ensure drivers have the best possible experience and can make the most of their time driving on the app. That’s why over the last few months we’ve introduced dozens of new features, including sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections. An academic study last month found that drivers in London make an average of £11 an hour, after accounting for all of their costs and Uber’s service fee.
“We continue to look at ways to help drivers increase their earnings and our door is always open if anyone wants to speak to us about any issues they’re having.”
Tony Royle, a professor of industrial relations at the University of York, said the Uber strike and last week’s action against McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s and Wetherspoons were all symptomatic of a growing frustration at increasing income equality in the sectors concerned. “More strikes are likely as workers realise that collective action is an effective way to get their voices heard,” he said.
The action is being watched from other countries where Uber has faced protests from drivers. Sarah Kaine, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, said that “alt-unionism” – sometimes involving spontaneous actions by workers that do not conform to the traditional pattern of strike behaviour or other industrial action – had been an interesting development.
Separately, Uber was criticised by the chair of the London assembly’s transport committee for failing to attend hearings on Tuesday into the taxi and private hire market.
“The transport committee was very disappointed that Uber was unwilling to attend,” said Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member. “If we are to make progress in building a better future for this industry, it is necessary for all the players in the market to engage proactively and publicly. We would have preferred to question them in public, rather than in private. Londoners deserve to hear all sides of the story on this divisive issue.”
Uber was contacted for comment but has yet to respond.